Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Al Kooper and Stephen Stills -- "Season of the Witch" (1968)

You've got to pick up every stitch,
The rabbits running in the ditch,
Oh no, must be the season of the witch

It was only a matter of time before I repeated myself.  I knew that sooner or later I would tell a story I had told before, or reuse some clever little witticism or bon mot.  But I didn't really think I would forget an entire post.

"Season of the Witch" is notable for many reasons, one of which is the number of very good cover versions of the song.  After writing about Donovan's recording of the song, I decided to cover the cover version from the Al Kooper-Stephen Stills Super Session album, which is probably the most famous of the covers.

When I sat down to start writing this post, I had vivid memories of certain stories about the recording sessions for this album.  I've been plotting my "29 posts in 28 days" series for some time -- assembling the various drafts in a piecemeal fashion -- and figured I must have already written a partial draft incorporating those anecdotes some time ago.

When I went searching for that draft, imagine my surprise when I discovered that I had already posted about this version of "Season of the Witch" back in October 2010.  Is my face red!

Well, it's "too late to turn back now" (to quote the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose), so I'm just going to cut and paste the original post, edit it, and move on.  Most of you probably haven't read it, and those who have read it have no doubt forgotten most of what they read.  (Hey, if I don't remember writing it, what are the odds that you'll remember reading it?)

The Super Session album was Al Kooper's idea.  Kooper was sort of a rock music Renaissance man -- he did everything and did everything well.  When he was 14, he was playing guitar for the band that recorded "Short Shorts," and when he was 16, he co-wrote "This Diamond Ring" for Gary Lewis & the Playboys.  (Did you know that Gary Lewis was the son of Jerry Lewis?)

(I believe this puts Kooper within two degrees of Leon Russell, although I wouldn't be surprised if they had a one-degree connection somewhere down the road.) 

Kooper also was the guy who played the organ on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

Kooper formed Blood, Sweat & Tears, but left after their first album, Child Is Father to the Man (which is a brilliant piece of work -- more about it later as well).  He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, and produced their first three albums.  He produced the first Tubes album (which I've written about on this blog -- it's a work of genius as well).  He was the musical director for the mid-1980s Michael Mann television series, "Crime Story," which starred one of my favorite character actors, Dennis Farina.  And this barely scratches the surface of Kooper's musical accomplishments.  

Al Kooper
Super Session was Kooper's idea.  It features Kooper and guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, but Bloomfield and Stills never play together on the record.  It's Bloomfield on side one, and Stills on side two.   Here's the story behind that.

When Kooper decided to do Super Session, he had recently left Blood, Sweat & Tears and was working as an A&R man for Columbia Records.  (A&R stands for "artists and repertoire" -- in essence, Kooper was a musical talent scout).  Bloomfield was about to leave Electric Flag (I'll get to them eventually as well), so Kooper called to see if he was free to come down to the studio and jam.

Kooper booked two days of studio time and recruited keyboardist Barry Goldberg and bassist Harvey Brooks (both were old pals of Bloomfield's from the Electric Flag), along with session drummer "Fast" Eddie Hoh, who by coincidence had played drums on Donovan's recording of "Season of the Witch."  The first day, they recorded mostly blues-based instrumental tracks.

Super Session (day 2)
On the second day, Bloomfield was nowhere to be found.  The desperate Kooper was able to reach Stephen Stills, who was in the process of leaving Buffalo Springfield and who agreed to drop by the studio.

That day, Kooper's merry little band recorded mostly vocal tracks, including Bob Dylan's "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry" and a leisurely, eleven-minutes-and-seven-seconds long version of "Season of the Witch" by Donovan.

The album, which eventually went gold, cost just $13,000 to make.  It was The Blair Witch Project of rock albums, and helped inspire a whole series of "supergroup" collaborations — Blind Faith (coming soon to this blog), Crosby, Stills & Nash, and others.  

Kooper forgave Bloomfield, and the two of them made several concert appearances after the album was released.  A three-night gig at the Fillmore in the fall of 1968 was turned into a two-record album The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.   The cover of that album was a painting of Kooper and Bloomfield by . . . are you sitting down? . . . Norman Rockwell!

Here's the Kooper/Stills version of the song:

Here's a link to use to order this song from iTunes:

Season of the Witch - Super Session

Here's a link you can use to order it from Amazon:

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